Geoengineering offers the realistic prospect of a technological fix for climate change. So why do so many critics on the political left fail to see how it can be a force for global good?

If geoengineering can protect the vulnerable and the natural environment, why then is there such strong opposition to geoengineering from the political left? Since the 1960s, the environmental left has evolved a set of widely held assumptions about the characteristics that mark good solutions to environmental problems. They include a preference for local over global, from community-supported agriculture to the empowerment of indigenous peoples in the management of tropical forests; a preference for changing industrial processes to eliminate the pollutant over the use of end-of-pipe waste treatments; and finally, a preference for social over technological solutions.

Geoengineering violates each of these assumptions and in that sense its rejection is unsurprising.

Activist Naomi Klein, for example, argues in Capitalism vs. the Climate that ”real climate solutions are ones that steer these interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, whether through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.” Maybe, but the link between these solutions and emissions reductions is tenuous, and Klein provides no evidence to make link other than asserting that big oil ”got us into this mess.”

To pick just one example of fuzzy thinking, local organic agriculture does little or nothing to cut emissions, indeed it may have higher emissions than modern industrial farming. It’s hard not to suspect that the means and ends have been reversed, that Klein knows the political outcome she favors and has simply latched onto the climate threat as a way to advance it.

Must we fix capitalism in order to fix the climate? Any serious argument in favor of this proposition must confront the fact that Western democracies have made enormous progress in managing environmental problems over the last half century. To cite just two examples, the abatement of air pollution by the regulatory system anchored by the U.S. Clean Air Act has improved air quality even as population and wealth increased.

This was no minor victory. These regulations imposed costs that peaked at almost 1% of the U.S. economy, they were opposed by powerful corporate interests and the political battle to enact them was long and fierce. The benefits in the form of improved health greatly exceed the cost and in many cities these regulations have improved life expectancies by almost a year. The fight is not over, but the victories are real and should be celebrated. A global restriction on ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons provides a second and perhaps more impressive example because it demanded coordinated global action and it has succeeded in driving global emissions towards zero.

The rise of inequality and the loss of social mobility in the United States are pressing examples of the need for political and economic reform, but to sustain claims that an effective response to climate change requires a fundamental reengineering of market capitalism is to deny the fact that liberal market economies have done a far better job of environmental regulation than their competitors.

Keith photo

It’s time for environmental advocates to reexamine some old assumptions. Should we prefer local over global? It’s an odd argument for the left to make. After all, the essence of solving global commons problems like climate is to compel local communities to cut their emissions to achieve a shared global good even though it’s in the self–interest of each community to use that atmosphere as a carbon dump. The imperative that the global public good trump local autonomy is the reason environmental groups have expended such effort on global climate treaty. Arguments for local autonomy arguably come more naturally from the libertarian strain of the political right, a perspective that makes a paradox of the environmental left’s preference for small-is-beautiful.

Should we prefer social to technical fixes? One can argue either side, but whichever you prefer it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the big environmental wins of the last half century have been techno-fixes. Air pollution was cut using catalytic converters not carpooling; the ozone layer was saved by changing refrigerants not turning back to root cellars; and peregrine falcons were saved from DDT by developing insecticides less prone to bioaccumulation.

I am not advocating laissez-faire capitalism. On the contrary, I would like to see much more stringent environmental laws and a carbon price large enough to quickly drive high-carbon business out of existence. Getting to such an environmental victory will require a powerful new social movement. Indeed, looking backwards, one might turn my claim about historical environmental wins being technological on its head by arguing that the technology would never emerged without the rise of environmentalism and growing distrust of corporate power in the 1960s that drove the passage of the laws, laws that in turn drove industry to adopt the technical fixes that ultimately protected the environment. Klein rightly explains how corporate money spreads climate denial to block action.

The link between restraining aggressive capitalism and minimizing harm to the environment arises, in my view, not because political and economic liberalism are inherently anti-environmental, but because an accumulation of cooperate power and private political money has frustrated the ability of government to act in the public interest.

 The article is an excerpt from A Case for Climate Engineering, by David Keith, courtesy of the MIT Press, 2013.